One of the things that I was most looking forward to on my trip to Tunis was exploring the souks in the medieval medina, the old part of the city. I’d really enjoyed visiting the souks of Mahdia and Monastir on a previous trip to Tunisia, and when I saw how many beautiful things there were to buy there, I’d regretted travelling with just hand luggage. This time I checked in a suitcase – thankfully Tunisair has a very generous luggage allowance. I was in Tunis as part of a paid blogger campaign.*
Tunis medina dates from the ninth century, and it’s known as one of North Africa’s most impressive examples of a medieval medina. At one time the medina was enclosed by eight kilometres of walls, but these were destroyed by the French during the colonial era.
Today its architecture divides the medina from the rest of the city – you can see where the medina begins just by looking at the buildings. The streets in the medina are narrow and winding, full of covered souks, artisans’ workshops and residential buildings with colourful painted doors.
Souks are traditional shopping districts where small shops and stalls are packed in tightly. In Tunis the souks are organised by the type of products on sale. So there are souks for perfume, wedding goods, textiles and so on. We were staying in the medina, so we passed through the souks as we explored the city, and we always seemed to get drawn into a shop at some point to look at a particular product or to watch an artisan at work. It felt fine to go into the souks without buying anything, and I didn’t ever feel hassled or pressured by any of the shopkeepers.
We had an excellent guide with us on the first day of our trip, and he told us that at night the souks are all shut up like a fortress, and that there are gates which close off each different section. At night, the only people inside the souks are the security guards, and there are guard dogs on the roof listening out for thieves. So there’s a kind of ancient cooperative security system in place, and it sounds very effective.
How to pay in the souks
If you want to buy anything in the souks, it’s best to pay in cash, so be sure to have some Tunisian Dinar (TND) with you, although Euros and credit cards also seem to be accepted in some places. The Dinar is a closed currency, so you can only buy it once you arrive in Tunisia. There are banks in the arrivals hall at Tunis airport where you can do this, or some hotels will exchange currency for guests, or you can use an ATM or go to a bank in the city if you can find one that’s open.
What to buy in the souks
There’s a rich variety of local handicrafts and products on offer in the souks at very good prices, particularly ceramics, textiles, jewellery and perfume. To give you an idea of what things cost, £1 was worth around 3.50 TND when we visited. We saw bright cotton hammam towels for 10 TND (about £3), large hand painted ceramic bowls for 15 TND (about £4.30) and small ones one for 7 TND (£2), and vibrant tunic dresses for kids for 12 TND (£3.40).
Intriguingly, perfume is sold in the souks in small glass containers, which are decanted from large bottles. In a perfume shop we were invited to sample some gorgeous fragrances, including jasmine, lemon and rose. We learnt that these concentrated perfumes can be diluted with water or alcohol at home to make eau de parfum. Each small container of scent cost 15 TND (£4.30). My favourite was the jasmine perfume, and I just had to buy some to bring home. Now I need to work out how to dilute it!
How to haggle in the souks
I have to say that I didn’t try to haggle in the souks, because the prices seemed so low. But apparently haggling is expected here, and I found that shopkeepers would think that I was looking for a lower price when I was actually just thinking. So I’d ask how much something was, they’d tell me, and then while I was quietly weighing up whether or not to buy whatever it was, they’d offer me a better price. Then I’d feel guilty.
So if you do want to haggle, my advice is to be quiet once you’ve asked the price of something! But please do tell me how to do it, if you’re a better haggler than I am (which you probably are).
What to wear in the souks
Tunisia is a traditional and conservative place, and if you’d like to be respectful of local culture then you need to think about what you wear, especially as it can get very hot. So whereas in Italy or Spain in the summer, I may wear shorts and a sleeveless top, in Tunisia I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. In Tunis I wore a knee-length cotton dress one day and loose cotton trousers and a T-shirt another day when we were exploring the city.
Where to eat in the souks
There are plenty of places to eat in the souks, from friendly street food stalls to busy cafes to restaurants serving three-course meals. We had lunch one day at Fondouk El Attarine, a beautifully restored caravanserai in the middle of the souks. Historically a caravanserai was a large guesthouse where travelling merchants and their caravans of goods and animals could rest overnight. Fondouk El Attarine restaurant serves traditional Tunisian dishes in its large airy courtyard, and it was busy with locals when we visited on a Saturday. I’m vegetarian, and after some discussion as to what I could actually eat from the menu, I had a salad to start then couscous with vegetables, and it was all very tasty.
Fondouk El Attarine also has some shops which sell luxurious local products, and I bought a bottle of gorgeous-smelling jasmine room spray from there for 20 TND (around £5).
Artisans in the souks
There are artisan workshops all over the souks, and you can go in and see the craftsmen at work and ask about their products (it helps if you can speak French). We popped in to a tiny shop where a tailor was sewing a traditional jebba made of silk. These garments have intricate stitching and are worn by men and boys for weddings and other special occasions. We learnt that these tunics can take two months to sew.
Rooftop terrace in the souks
We went into one large shop (Le Groupement Artisanal, 58 Soul El Leffa) which had a quirky rooftop terrace with views across the whole medina. The terrace was decorated with mosaic tiles and arches and it was free to access. We spent some time there taking photos and enjoying the views, and on our way back down we were treated to an interesting demonstration of traditional handmade carpets.
In another room in the shop there was an enormous ornate bed. I was surprised to hear from our guide that this bed belonged to the ‘last king of Tunisia’ (it wasn’t clear why this is in a shop rather than in a museum though!)
The best place in Tunis for food shopping is the Marché Central, which is away from the souks and the medina, in the city centre. The vast market hall dates from the 19th century, and it’s the place to come for locally caught fish, spicy harissa, herbs and plants and of course for haggling and people-watching. I paid 0.6 TND (17p) for 100g of oregano when I was there.
I really enjoyed exploring and shopping in the souks and the medina in Tunis, as well as visiting the central market. It was fascinating to see where and how Tunisians shop, and I felt like I learnt a lot about local culture through these experiences. I didn’t notice any other tourists when we were in these places. The locals that we met were all friendly and respectful, and we were never hassled by anyone at all.
Where to stay in Tunis medina
Some of the historic buildings in the medina are now beautiful boutique hotels, so if you want to stay within walking distance of the souks, you have some great options in Tunis.
We stayed in the medina at the grand former palace Palais Bayram for two nights and at the stylish spa hotel Dar El Jeld for one night, and I’d recommend both of those. We also had a tour of the wonderful Dar Ben Gacem, and I’d definitely stay there if I had the chance.
Getting to Tunisia and travelling around
Fly with Tunisair from London (Gatwick or Heathrow on different days) direct to Tunis.
Easyjet are flying from London Gatwick direct to Enfidha-Hammamet in Tunisia twice a week from May 2nd, 2020.
Within Tunisia, you can travel around using taxis, which are very cheap, or your hotel can arrange a car for you, or you can hire a car. Bear in mind that if you’re staying in the medina in Tunis, a taxi may not be able to take you to the door of your hotel, as access in the medina is limited.
More on Tunisia
You can read more about my experiences in Tunisia in these posts:
These great posts by my fellow bloggers from The Family Travel Collective are very helpful:
Palais Bayram review: a boutique hotel in Tunis, Tunisia by Cathy Winston.
A boutique hotel in Tunis: Dar El Jeld Hotel and Spa review by Ting Dalton.
Shopping in Tunisia – 10 of the best souvenirs to buy in Tunisia by Nichola West.
Into the Blue: Weekend in Tunis Itinerary by Kirstie Pelling.
*Disclosure: I went to Tunisia as part of a paid ad campaign with the Tunisian National Tourist Office. All opinions, words and images are my own and are completely independent, as ever.